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Wheaton French Market highlights homegrown talent

Published: Saturday, May 4, 2013 6:18 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, July 25, 2014 4:52 a.m. CDT

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WHEATON – For 15 years, Wheaton residents have enjoyed a little slice of Paris – savory snacks, handmade jewelry and more laid out on tables shadowed by canopies, a signature of markets in France – without having to travel farther than Main Street and Liberty Drive.

"It is one of the largest and most popular French Markets in Illinois," said Leslie Cahill, general manager of Bensidoun French Markets in the Chicago area. "It's a gem and a treasure for Wheaton"

About 85 vendors are participating in this year's Wheaton French Market, including several based in the city.

Wheaton businesses that will be appearing every week at the market include Pad Thai Etc Restaurant, Suzette's Creperie, The Bleu Olive, Pop-A-Harrys Gourmet Popcorn and Second Chance Coffee Company. Several others are part-time vendors.

The market runs from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. every Saturday. Its start date was April 20, and it will continue through Dec. 21.

Residents will be able to find everything from sweet and savory dishes to clothes and jewelry to hand puppets and garden art at this year's French Market, Cahill said. The Wheaton market is one of several in the Chicago area run by Bensidoun, a French company with markets in New York, Connecticut and Paris as well.

Before Suzette's Creperie moved to Front Street about 13 years ago, becoming a staple brick-and-mortar business in downtown Wheaton, residents could purchase its crepes on spring and summer weekends when the French Market rolled into town. Although Suzette's no longer sells crepes at the market, the creperie still participates, offering savory sandwiches and mini pizzas to market guests.

Owner Donna Hesik said the French Market is a great place for entrepreneurs to test their products to see what customers like, building up a loyal clientele in the process.

"I'm a big supporter of the market," Hesik said. "It's a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to get their feet wet."

And Hesik isn't the only Wheaton entrepreneur to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the French Market.

Kacie Romberg, Wheaton resident and founder of Bumble.Bee, sells handmade girls' clothing and accessories at the French Market every third Saturday through September.

This is Romberg's first year at the Wheaton market, although she started Bumble.Bee in 2009 when she was in college. The children's clothing company is based out of Romberg's Wheaton home, and up until this year, she had focused solely on online sales and visits to craft shows.

Although her goal is to one day set up a permanent location for her store, Romberg said that dream is still another five or so years away from becoming reality. For now, she wants to build up her online presence, and if Hesik's following of loyal clientele is any indication, Romberg should be able to reach many potential fans via the French Market.

Linda Wagner, owner of Art Girl Pottery, started her custom pottery business after teaching a pottery class at the Wheaton Park District for several years. She decided to take a leap of faith and set up a studio in the basement of her Wheaton home.

Although Wagner has sold her items through other area stores and hopes to continue to do so in the near future, she also sells products online, and she's been a part of the Wheaton French Market for seven years. She hopes to expand her online business and eventually her home studio as well.

This year, Wagner said she's scheduled to participate in the market almost every other week through September.

In addition to various pottery pieces, she also makes customized pendants – some designed for specific causes, such as breast cancer awareness, which have been used in fundraising efforts.

Overall, Wagner said the French Market has played a large role in helping her business become what it is today.

"The French Market is what's made my business grow," Wagner said. "I don't think without the market, I would have had the exposure."

Many other Wheaton residents are fans of the market as well. Building a permanent French Market structure is part of the discussion surrounding the development of a strategic plan for downtown Wheaton. At the most recent open house, held by planning consultant Design Workshop, attendees chose the permanent structure as one of their top recommendations for the downtown area.

Cahill said staff at Bensidoun, who have experience operating indoor markets, are excited for whatever Wheaton decides will be the city's next steps.

In the meantime, Hesik said the outdoor market continues to be a place where Wheaton residents can spend time together, just standing side-by-side, talking. French Markets are meant to serve as a way for the community in an area to gather, she said.

"Wheaton has captured that," said Hesik.

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